You’ve explored the shops, galleries and glass-towered streets of downtown Vancouver. But where should you head next on your visit to British Columbia’s biggest city? Side trips to Whistler, Victoria or even Bowen Island are always great here but if you’re looking for the easiest excursion from the metropolis, look northward across Burrard Inlet ­– then hop on the SeaBus.

Colorful murals cover the wall of a long alley © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Fun Alley in Lower Lonsdale, North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

Getting to North Vancouver

A 12-minute transit ferry away, a visit to North Vancouver ­– a city in its own right – starts with this scenic ocean crossing. The initial harbor hop is a big part of the excursion’s appeal. From downtown Vancouver’s historic Waterfront Station, SeaBus vessels – squat, boxy commuter ferries first launched in 1977 – shimmy across the inlet, weaving past humongous harbor cranes, noisy little floatplanes and the occasional curious seal surfacing to ogle the boats. As Vancouver’s clamorous shoreline fades from view, the revolving neon ‘Q’ of Lonsdale Quay looms in the sky ahead.

On the other side, buses depart for Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Or you can just stay where you are: the Lower Lonsdale area is a highly walkable district crammed with options at the shoreline end of super-steep Lonsdale Avenue.

A mural featuring a soaring eagle and a fishing boat pulling up to a sandy shoreline covers one wall of a public market © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Outside Lonsdale Quay Public Market in North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

The market

Disembark at North Vancouver’s busy dock – watch for cormorants sunning on the terminal’s roof ­– then veer right. You’ll soon be at Lonsdale Quay Public Market. But before entering the red-trimmed landmark, take your camera to the shoreline railings outside. The boardwalk provides grand panoramic views of Vancouver’s shimmering skyline across the water.

Snap some cool shots, then head inside. After Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market, this is the region’s favorite covered, stall-lined shopping spot. Popular vendors here hawk everything from local-made candies to British Columbia wines and from fresh-catch fish to in-season Okanagan Valley fruit. In summer, look out for peaches, nectarines and blueberries.

The food stands also are a big hook. There’s everything from poke to pizza to fish and chips, with local-favorite Sharky’s offering perhaps the best deal: a heaping platter of fresh-cooked steak, sausage or pulled pork plus two sides for $9.95 CAD ($7.60 USD). Finish off with a four-glass flight of beers from the market’s Green Leaf Brewing and you’ll be fully fueled for some on-foot exploring.

The modern facade of an art gallery, with angled gray wood and long rows of inset windows dominates the foreground with other building rising behind © John Lee / Lonely Planet
The landmark Polygon Gallery in Lower Lonsdale, North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

The gallery

Opened in 1986, the market was the first major attempt at revitalizing Lower Lonsdale, a tough-as-rivets district long known for its gritty shipyard operations. The transformation was slow until recent years when new hotels, stores and restaurants suddenly began popping up. The biggest development? The 2017 opening of the Polygon Gallery.

A few steps from the market, this dramatic art space – with its steel-clad exterior and jagged sawtooth roof – replaced North Vancouver’s old Presentation House Gallery, retaining the former’s contemporary photography focus but increasing its exhibit space five-fold. With eye-opening works by local and international artists, its gift shop is also filled with design-focused knickknacks and tempting photography gear.

A massive yellow crane rises above a park with umbrellas and a building in the background © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Reminder of the old shipyard operations are never far away in Lower Lonsdale, North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

The history

While the popular gallery has been a game changer, the across-the-street opening of the fancy new North Vancouver Museum in 2020 will cement the area’s culture-hub credentials. But extensive development doesn’t mean Lower Lonsdale’s past has been entirely erased. Reminders of the salty working history here have also been preserved – as long as you know where to look.

From the Polygon, a shoreline promenade leads into the old Wallace Shipyards site. Now the plaza-like center of a recently rechristened Shipyards District, it’s dominated by a huge industrial crane from the area’s hardworking past. There are also photo plaques here detailing the city’s boat-building golden age. And if you fancy heading out to sea yourself, there’s also a 700-ft-long pier to wander along.

Some of the yard’s old sheds have also been preserved and given a new lease on life, transformed into restaurants and meeting places. The most prominent is the Pipe Shop. Centerpiece of the summer-long Shipyards Night Market – complete with food trucks and alfresco live music ­– its entranceway is overlooked by a giant photomural of yesteryear workers arriving at the yard.

Small concrete cows sit on a stone block © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Cow-themed art installation on the streets of Lower Lonsdale, North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

Uphill amble

These days, North Vancouver locals are more likely to be noodling around boutiques and restaurants than donning coveralls and welding goggles. Rising steeply from the waterfront foot of Lonsdale Avenue, there are several blocks of visit-worthy eateries and shops to explore.

Tucked into restored heritage buildings, don’t miss Mo’s General Store, a hip variety shop selling everything from colorful "Unicorn Poo" soap to handmade candies from Vancouver’s Wishing Treats. But if you’re craving more than candy, check out comfort food kings Burgoo Bistro; quirky sandwich shop Meat at O’Neill’s; and the family-run Artisan Bake Shoppe. And keep your eyes trained on the sidewalks here for a series of tiny concrete cows, recalling the area’s early pioneer days.

A green awning tops a red door as customers enter a small restaurant © John Lee / Lonely Planet
Lift Breakfast Bakery in Lower Lonsdale, North Vancouver © John Lee / Lonely Planet

The future?

If you really want to see how far Lower Lonsdale has come, turn left along West First Street. The first block here was recently designated a smoking-free zone. And while it’s only a voluntary prohibition, it’s a healthy sign of the times that might puzzle many of those yesteryear shipyard workers. While you’re here, duck along the street’s bright-painted Fun Alley, a rainbow-hued enclave that feels like a walk-through kaleidoscope.

Several of North Vancouver’s coolest new businesses are also found on First. Tucked into a clapboard heritage building, Lift Breakfast Bakery serves coffee, pastries and more (eggs benedict recommended), while Green Moustache Cafe offers hearty vegetarian dishes. But not everything on this street is new: Buddha-Full has been luring vegan juice fans here since 2010 – showing that Lower Lonsdale’s ‘rapid transformation’ has actually been quietly under way for years.

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